By Patrick Striet, CSCS ProSource
For more than three quarters of a century, high rep squats have been part and parcel of the training programs of the strongest men to ever walk the planet: Marvin Eder, Reg Park, Paul Anderson, Tommy Kono, John Davis, John Grimek, and Arnold himself. As a teenager, two of the first books I ever read on training were Super Squats by Dr. Randall J. Strossen, and (Iron Man founder) Peary Rader's The Rader Master Bodybuilding and Weight Gaining System. Both of these books extolled the benefits of high rep barbell squats, and are regarded as classic training books to this day.
Furthermore, it was around this time I started reading the works of iron game legend and New York based strength coach Dr. Ken Leistner. High rep squats were the cornerstone of every program Leistner wrote for his trainees. His adopted son, Kevin Tolbert, routinely squatted 400-500 lbs. for 20+ reps as part of his regular training. Leistner himself, recorded on video, squatted 400+ lbs. for over 20 reps, at a body weight of about 160 lbs., in his 50's.
The beauty of high rep squats, as I see it, is that they can literally help you achieve ANY training goal. Are you after more size? Well, go from squatting 185 lbs. for 20 reps to 275 lbs. for 20 reps and tell me your legs (and most everything else) don't get substantially larger. What about strength? Again, put 50 lbs. on your best 20 rep squat and tell me your 1-5 rep max squat doesn't sky rocket once you return to lower rep training. Fat loss? The metabolic demand high rep squats place on your entire system results in a substantial afterburn, which keeps the calories burning for hours after your workout is finished. What about conditioning and better cardio? Weight training can't improve cardiovascular fitness, right? Wrong. Get to a point where you can squat with your body weight on the bar for 50 full reps and tell me your lungs are not ready to come out of your chest and your heart rate isn't exceeding 100% of theoretical maximum.
While high rep squatting can obviously help you achieve essentially ANY training goal, the biggest benefit, in my opinion, comes from the toughness and mentality it builds. There are few things more grueling or uncomfortable than high rep squats. There are few things which will test your intestinal fortitude to a greater extent. If you are looking to gain an "edge", squat for high reps. You'll leave the gym feeling as though you can take on anything life throws at you. If you are looking for a gut check, high rep barbell squats are your ticket.
Getting Started with High Rep Squats
If you are used to training the barbell squat for max strength in the 1-6 rep range, get ready for a huge adjustment and shock to your system during your first couple high rep squat workouts. The overall metabolic demand of high rep squats is off the charts and is the strength training equivalent of getting slapped upside the head with a 2x4. Furthermore, the delayed onset soreness you'll experience can be literally crippling if you are over zealous. Here is an appropriate and realistic 8-week program which will allow you to reap all of the benefits of high reps squats without needing assistance to use the John (well...not too much any way):
8 Week Program
Week 1:4 sets of 10 reps using 50-55% of your estimated 1 rep max
Week 2:3 sets of 15 (5 lbs. heavier than week 1)
Week 3:5 sets of 10 (5 lbs. heavier than week 2)
Week 4: 2 sets of 20 (5 lbs. heavier than week 3)
Week 5: 1 set of 30 reps (5 lbs. heavier than week 4)
Week 6: 2 sets of 20 reps (5 lbs. heavier than week 5)
Week 7: 1 set of 40 reps (5 lbs. heavier than week 6)
Week 8: Max Reps with Week 1 weight
It is important to note that what I've laid out here is purely an example and an estimate based off of my experience (both personally and in dealing with clients). You can make adjustments on an individual basis. I've had guys who could raw squat 2.5 times body weight for a single who were absolutely floored after week 1, and, on the opposite end of the spectrum, I've had guys of a similar strength level who had absolutely no problem with week 1 at all. You'll have to feel things out a bit. A lot of it depends on your current conditioning and work capacity: a really strong guy with poor cardio and who is not used to sets above 6 or 8 reps is going to have a rough time at the onset even though the weights, in an absolute sense, are "light". Someone who is in decent condition and is used to doing moderate to higher rep lower body assistance work likely will not be as gassed.
High Rep Squat Bench Marks
Goals and progression are what separates true training from simply "working out". Here are some high rep squat goals to progress towards and shoot for:
Good: bodyweight (bar weight) for 20 reps (200 lb. guy squatting 200 lbs. for 20 reps)
Really Good: 1.25 x current bodyweight for 20 reps (200 lb. guy squatting 250 lbs. for 20 reps)
Great: 1.5 x current body weight for 20 reps (200 lb. guy squatting 300 lbs. for 20 reps)
Excellent: 1.75 bodyweight for 20 reps (200 lb. guy squatting 350 lbs. for 20 reps)
Off the Charts/Elite: 2 x bodyweight for 20 reps (200 lb. guy squatting 400 lbs. for 20 reps)
Bonus goals: bodyweight for 1 set of 50 reps OR body weight for 10 sets of 10 reps with 1:00 between sets
High Rep Squat Tips
I would strongly advise performing high rep squats (particularly bench mark tests) TO A BOX. Depending on your height and hip mobility (we don't want anyone blowing out a disc), a box height of 14-20 in. is advised. If you are shorter with good hip mobility, squat to a 14 in. box. If you are taller and/or have hip mobility issues (your tailbone tucks under), I'd advise squatting to a 16-20 in. box.
Notice I said to a box and NOT box squats. Squatting to a box with a very light touch is very different than performing a box squat where you actually sit down and slightly unload onto a box, which breaks up the stretch shortening cycle. All we are looking for here is a way to ensure adequate depth, which is to be replicated on each rep, without getting hurt. I like this method because many people who get deeper into a set of high rep squats begin to cut their depth short. Squatting to a box ensures you are doing the same amount of work on each rep.
What about breathing? Well, you'll quickly find out high rep squats result in substantial "huffing and puffing". They are often referred to as "breathing squats" for a reason. However, I'd advise against standing and breathing too long between reps. While standing with 1-2 times your body weight on your back is far from "rest", it can, for some, make things easier and make progression harder to realistically quantify. We are looking for, in the case of a 20 rep set, an actual 20 rep set...NOT a set of 10 followed by 10 seconds of breathing, then a set of 3, followed by 20 seconds of breathing, etc. I'd suggest getting into a rhythm and taking the same number of breaths between reps in the fully upright position.
High reps squats may just be the perfect and most versatile training protocol as they allow you to achieve and train for multiple qualities--strength, size, conditioning, fat loss--simultaneously. Get out of your comfort zone, get to high reppin', and reap the benefits!